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10 things to know before you buy in a community association

It’s important to understand what you can and cannot do.

.Ally Rzesa/Globe staff; Adobe Stock

Are you planning to buy a home in a community association? There are a host of advantages to buying a condominium, cooperative, or single-family home in a planned community. A well-run association will protect property values in the community, maintain common areas (and perhaps even your own property), provide access to amenities like swimming pools and tennis courts, and assist with conflict resolution among neighbors.

Perhaps that’s why a survey by the Foundation for Community Association Research indicated that homeowners are satisfied in their communities, with 89 percent of Massachusetts residents saying their association’s rules protect and enhance property values or have a neutral effect.


But life in a community association also comes with responsibilities and limitations. Many first-time buyers may be surprised to learn, for example, that they can’t plant flowers outside their condo or fence in the rear yard of their home.

“Thirty years ago, people were woefully uneducated and didn’t know much about condominiums,” said Claudette Carini, executive director of the New England chapter of the Community Associations Institute. “As time has gone on, I’m getting fewer questions from homeowners who don’t understand their role in the community or the role of the board. That’s a good thing.”

If you’re about to join the 1.65 million people living in the 11,230 community associations in Massachusetts, here are 10 things you need to know before you buy:

1. The legal structure of your home may vary. Review the governing documents of the association, or speak with your agent or attorney, to determine exactly what you’re purchasing. A town house, for example, can be either fee-simple ownership, in which you own the structure and the land it sits on, or a condominium, in which you basically own the interior of your unit and a percentage of the common elements. Even a detached home can be a condominium in some communities. The legal structure will determine the extent of your responsibilities to maintain and repair the property and also will affect the type of homeowners insurance policy you’ll need.


2. You are obligated to pay assessments. The most common questions Carini gets from homeowners involve assessments. “New owners should understand what the assessment is and the authority and role of the board in maintaining the community and collecting that assessment to offset those maintenance expenses,” she said. Owners also need to understand that they may be liable for special assessments collected when associations don’t have the funds for large capital projects or need cash to repair damage from casualties or natural disasters.

3. Your community may not be financially stable. Before you buy, review the association budget and reserve schedule to ensure there are sufficient funds on hand to cover the annual budget and planned repairs. Review board minutes to learn of any impending repairs that could lead to a special assessment. Felicia Captain, a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Realty in Wellesley, said she always makes offers contingent on an attorney reviewing all of the association documents, including meeting minutes and budgets. Morgan Franklin, an agent with Coldwell Banker Realty in Boston, suggested studying the last five years of association fees to see whether the board has consistently raised them. If so, “then it might show the building is being poorly managed,” he said.


4. Pets may not be allowed. Many associations limit the number of pets you can have or restrict residents from owning certain breeds or sizes of dogs. Some communities ban pets outright. Do your due diligence so you don’t try to bring your 40-pound dog to a building that allows pets only up to 20 pounds.

5. Changes to the exterior must be approved. If you’re planning to add a wood deck to your home, paint it a new color, or even just plant flowers, be aware that depending on the association rules, you may have to get approval before doing so. Most associations regulate any alterations to a home.

6. You may be prohibited from renting. Debby Belt, a senior associate with Hammond Residential Real Estate in Chestnut Hill, said buyers planning to rent out their homes in the future should ensure that the association allows rentals. “Some buildings do not allow rentals, whereas others cap the number of rentals,” she said. “So, if a building only allows four out of 24 units to be rented, and they already are, an investor might be out of luck.”

7. You may have to kick the habit. Ryan J. Glass, vice president of Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty in Boston, said some buildings are non-smoking, which can be a deal-breaker for certain buyers. Be sure to ask about smoking restrictions before you sign a purchase agreement.

8. You may have trouble getting a mortgage. Melvin A. Vieira Jr., a real estate agent with Re/Max Destiny in Boston, said buyers should ensure that a mortgage on their home will be eligible for sale to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac or to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs if they are getting a VA mortgage. “‘Warrantable’ means that it will meet the approval of Fannie, Freddie, the VA, or FHA and that the interest rate could be lower,” he said. “‘Non-warrantable’ means it won’t meet their criteria, and it will be harder to get approved.”


9. There may be rules limiting move-ins. Michael W. Merrill, a real estate attorney with Merrill & McGeary in Boston, said condominiums often have move-in and move-out rules. For example, new residents may have to give seven days’ notice to use the freight elevator or move in only during certain hours or on certain days. He said some condominiums even require a security detail. Check the rules before you close.

10. You may have to get involved. Hillery Dorner, a real estate attorney with Dorner Law & Title Services PC in Concord, said it’s important for buyers to determine whether their association is professionally managed or self-managed. “Self-managed has some pitfalls,” Dorner said. “They may not be very active and therefore of no benefit, or they might be overactive and a little drunk on their own power. It also means a new owner might get drawn into volunteering.”

Certainly, the best way to protect the investment in your home is to get involved in the association, whether by running for a board position or volunteering to serve on a committee. Those who prefer not to be involved may prefer a professionally managed building.


Robyn A. Friedman has been writing about real estate and the home market for more than two decades. Follow her on Twitter @robynafriedman. Send questions to Address@globe.com. Subscribe to our Address newsletter at Boston.com/address-newsletter.